Cannes 2013, Day Four: The Coen brothers return to the festival with a folk-rock flashback

Cannes 2013, Day Four: The Coen brothers return to the festival with a folk-rock flashback

After four straight days of unseasonable downpours, it’s finally stopped raining here in Cannes. I’m still seeking shelter, though, as I seem to be the only critic in town who wasn’t blown away by Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest merry exercise in perversity from les frères Coen. For the first half hour or so, this freewheeling study of a fictional folk singer doing the club circuit in 1961 Greenwich Village (he’s based loosely on Dave Van Ronk) fires on all cylinders, achieving the ideal balance between goofy comedy and a growing sense of genuine despair. As the title character (whose Welsh first name I keep mispronouncing as “Llewellyn”; remember, the model for the guy was called Dave), musician/actor Oscar Isaac commands the screen at the outset with a gorgeous, start-to-finish rendition of the standard “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” then fully inhabits this hangdog, not terribly likeable starving artist, who when not onstage seems to divide his time between couch-surfing and knocking up his female acquaintances. A motley crew of fellow travelers are quickly and hilariously sketched; they include a husband-wife duo (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, both nicely cast against type) and an older couple, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Martlett), whose pet cat Llewyn accidentally sets loose and spends much of the movie attempting to recover. The film’s comic high point arrives early, when a broke Llweyn is called in for a session recording and finds that it’s a novelty song called “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” notable primarily for the nonstop wacky interjections (“UH-oh!” “Outer SPACE!”) and sound effects supplied by Jewish cowboy singer Al Cody (Adam Driver from Girls). Had the theater caught fire at that point, I’d have fled thinking that a masterpiece had been interrupted.

Unfortunately, Joel and Ethan then proceed to set their screenplay on fire, more or less. Following the first clunker of a scene—a dinner party that goes sour, at which Alex Karpovsky is present for no apparent reason except that he’s suddenly in everything—Llewyn abruptly takes a road trip to Chicago, sharing the car with a monosyllabic James Dean lookalike (Garrett Hedlund) and a grandiosely abusive jazzman (John Goodman). This lengthy detour, which abandons everything the film had established save for its protagonist, feels like a desperation move to combat writer’s block; while it has a few great moments, like Llewyn’s audition for a big-time Chicago manager played by F. Murray Abraham, the milieu-based specificity of the folk-scene material is sorely missed. Even after Llewyn returns to New York, the movie continues to operate in a picaresque, semi-random mode that just doesn’t suit the Coens well—they’re much better at clockwork contraptions. Obviously, this is a matter of opinion, and I’ll probably invalidate this entire paragraph for most of you by admitting that I think The Big Lebowski falls apart in its second half as well, in a similarly lazy way. But while I love a great deal of Inside Llewyn Davis, and especially admire its stubborn refusal to exonerate or condemn its anti-hero (who continually tries to do the right thing and then gives up when it proves too daunting or difficult), in the end it lacks the sharp concision of the folk tunes that it so commendably showcases. Grade: B

The frustration continues with the most recent Competition title to screen, Borgman, written and directed by the relatively unsung Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam. A surreal variation on Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning (remade in the U.S. as Down And Out In Beverly Hills), this extremely coy picture finds a mysterious stranger (Jan Bijvoet), first seen escaping an underground lair while pursued by a shotgun-wielding priest, infiltrating the upscale home of a bourgeois family, with the assistance of several equally ominous friends. There are shades of Teorema, too, although the psychosexual element is notably absent—while this bizarre clique’s methods of killing adults and somehow altering children are decidely earthbound, Borgman himself seems to have vaguely defined mind-control powers, frequently squatting nude over Mom (Hadewych Minis) as she sleeps and apparently influencing her dreams (in ways that turn her against her husband). It’s an arrestingly weird premise, and Van Warmerdam probably makes the right decision in never explaining exactly what’s going on, allowing each viewer to project his/her own worst fears onto disturbing surgical procedures and the open-ended final shot. But he’s considerably less subtle about his thematic intent (“We have it so good,” Mom worries at one point. “We are fortunate. And the fortunate must be punished”), and any real-world resonance gets badly muddled by Borgman’s supernatural influence, which turns the family into passive victims who’ve committed no sin except amassing wealth. And not even that much wealth, really. Go after Jeff Bezos. Grade: B-

Speaking of folks with too much money, Alec Baldwin and director James Toback lugged a camera to last year’s Cannes Film Festival and now return to screen the resulting movie, a documentary called Seduced And Abandoned. Both of those guys are probably richer than you or I, but the gimmick here is that they’re seeking $20-25 million from wealthy investors in order to make an entirely different movie: a Last Tango In Paris-style erotic thriller to star Baldwin and Neve Campbell. (Maximum amount they’re told those two stars can actually raise: $5 million.) Between meetings with billionaires, they provide a quick tour of Cannes (during which I nearly sprained my neck scanning crowd shots for myself; I am not in this picture, alas); a brief history of the festival; a symposium on the film business (interviewing the likes of Scorsese and Bertolucci, Chastain and Gosling); and eventually a thesis statement on the relationship between cinema and mortality. I’d like to tell you this all comes together in a brilliant mosaic, but in fact it’s totally incoherent, lurching from one topic to another with no rhyme or reason whatsoever. Gosling, for example, relates a couple of fascinating anecdotes about the life of a struggling actor and a working actor, but his insights have zero relevance to anything else in the film. Likewise, Toback imposes his obsession with death on the proceedings at the last minute, with even Baldwin laughing on-camera at the blatant shoehorning. Seduced And Abandoned is fun to watch but maddeningly negligible, to the point where its title becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grade: B-


Tomorrow: is Asia Extreme Day at Cannes, as I’ll be looking in on new films from Takashi Miike (Audition) and Johnnie To (Exiled). And I might poke my head into James Franco’s adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but don’t be overly surprised if I don’t last to the end. 

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